Posted by: Josh Lehner | December 12, 2018

Reconsidering Single Family Zoning

As policymakers, builders, and the market work to solve the housing supply issues, a key question everybody asks is what type of housing do we need? Aren’t millennials always going to be renters? [No] Should we grow up, or out? Our office’s simple answer is yes. To accommodate recent and expected growth we will need to see housing supply pick up across the spectrum. This includes both an increase in the effective (buildable) land supply and redevelopment opportunities on lands within our existing communities. This is especially true for areas with good access to employment centers, stores, restaurants, transit and the like.

While most housing discussions — at least ones our office are a part of — tend to focus on land supply and new construction on the urban fringes, the redevelopment aspect is also an integral part of the housing supply solution. Despite this post’s title, I don’t want to get bogged down in the zoning weeds here. That said, there are a number of important aspects to discuss and points to consider. Lately I have incorporated more of this work into presentations, including for recent Bend and Portland forecast events.

The crux of the matter is land is the scarce commodity here. Outside of lava flows and seawalls, we’re not making more of it. As a region grows, so too does housing demand which places upward pressure on housing costs. This is great for homeowners as wealth builds, but bad for renters and the economy more broadly. Provided we, as a community, actually want to address affordability and accommodate future growth, increased construction is a must.

The problem is in many places one cannot simply build more housing due to zoning restrictions (minimum lot size requirements, setbacks, parking etc). However, if a community were to allow for more units to be built on a given parcel of land, then better affordability can be achieved, and future growth more efficiently accommodated. This is for at least two reasons. First, one would be dividing high land costs over a larger number of units which both lowers cost per unit and increases supply relative to existing zoning. Second, each unit will be smaller than under current zoning, which also lowers the cost per unit.

Currently the City of Portland is considering making changes to much of its single family zoned neighborhoods. Minneapolis recently passed similar zoning changes and Seattle has been wrestling with the possibility in recent years. Now, the proposed changes are not for high rise construction throughout the city, but it would allow for townhomes, duplexes, and triplexes to be built, the so-called missing middle housing. A recent analysis by Johnson Economics for the City of Portland confirms such changes would greatly increase housing supply and improve affordability relative to the status quo. Full disclosure: Jerry Johnson is a member of the Governor’s Council of Economic Advisors, our office’s main advisory group.

Essentially what the analysis finds is the net increase in new housing units in the City of Portland would triple relative to current policies and rents for the new units would be half the price. How is this possible? As the report says: “the net impact is expected to be a greater proportion of redevelopment being multiple-unit properties, providing greater net unit yield and lower average price points as a result.” Now, these new units are not cheap, as new construction is expensive, but allowing for townhomes and quads instead of just large, detached single family homes does reduce the price per unit. Additionally, this outcome does not result in a big increase in demolitions of existing homes either.

Specifically, the analysis finds the net increase in housing units on the potentially rezoned parcels would be 1,800 per year over the next 20 years. This is both massive for a single policy change and modest from a growing, regional perspective. In looking at population growth and household formation forecasts for the entire Portland region, this proposed change equals 13-15% of the annual increase in housing demand. By simply allowing for — not requiring — townhomes and triplexes to be built on existing lands in the City of Portland, the policy can accommodate 1 out of every 7 new Portland area households in the coming decade. That is a big finding. Now, on a regional scale it is a bit more modest as we still need to figure out where the other 6 new households will live.

Finally, while I believe the most important aspects from an economic perspective are affordability and supply, there are myriad concerns and societal issues that come along with growth and changes. Growing pains are real, even as they are much preferable to the pangs of decay seen through the Rust Belt and elsewhere. That said, as we have discussed before, there are also some real economic and societal benefits to missing middle housing.

All of these benefits accrue to individuals, their households, their communities and help address public policy issues at the same time. Townhomes are more affordable than detached single family homes*. Missing middle housing allows for somewhat denser neighborhoods which supports local businesses, a more walkable neighborhood while also not towering over neighboring buildings as high rises do. Providing housing options within existing neighborhoods also better allows one to age in place, and older residents do not have to leave lifelong friends and relationships to downsize as their housing needs change. Missing middle housing, through better affordability and providing options results in more integrated neighborhoods which is one of the five key characteristics of high economic mobility communities. Finally, missing middle housing reduces the environmental impact and, crucially, makes more efficient use of existing infrastructure.

From our office’s view, addressing housing supply and affordability is key to Oregon’s long-run economic growth. If households cannot afford to live in or move to Oregon, it puts our biggest comparative advantage at risk: the ability to attract and retain young, skilled workers.

* In presentations I like to give a personal anecdote to illustrate this dynamic. A couple years ago a builder tore down an old ranch on a double lot just around the corner from my house (4 tax lots away). It was replaced with two single family homes that sold for about $700,000 and $800,000. Only 10-15% of Portland area households could afford a home in that price range. At the same time this was happening, a builder tore down an old bungalow directly across the street from our house. It was replaced with two townhomes (a duplex) that each sold for about $450,000. While this is still expensive, and above market averages at the time, 30-35% of Portland area households could afford a home at that price point. In this sense, missing middle housing is 2-3 times as affordable as detached single family homes.

Posted by: Josh Lehner | December 7, 2018

Fun Friday: Households Feeling Good

The strong economy is reaching all corners with employment rates and household incomes rising. One result is households are feeling pretty good right now. Balance sheets have been repaired. Debt, while rising, is in line with income gains, meaning there is no massive buildup like last decade. More importantly, given low interest rates in recent years, the payments to service the debt are at or near historic lows. All told, consumer sentiment is as high as it was at the peak of the 1980s and mid-2000s expansions, although a bit lower than in the late 1990s.

One result of this is discretionary spending as picked up in recent years. Overall consumer spending is roughly in line with income growth, meaning the savings rate is holding fairly steady. But we have seen a shift in the types of things consumers are buying over the last couple of years.

In particular there has been strong gains in what I call entertainment spending. This includes admissions to events and activities, gambling, going out to eat and on vacation. These types of activities are discretionary and are growing more than one percentage point faster than income or overall spending in recent years. Obviously households don’t need entertainment to survive, although it does bring us joy, and more often than not sports-related heartbreak. It does appear that the strong economy, which drives household finances, is now translating into increased discretionary spending. This likely bodes well for holiday shopping in the immediate-term, but also for these types of businesses through the rest of this expansion.

Two final items. First, one could argue that a good chunk of this pick up in entertainment spending is the result of lower energy/gasoline spending in recent years, with an even more pronounced decline in Oregon. Given oil prices are somewhat higher today, expected growth in discretionary spending won’t be quite as strong as in 2015 or 2016.

Second, spending patterns vary within this broad entertainment category. One particular, discretionary activity our office tracks is gaming given we forecast revenues for the Oregon Lottery. Stay tuned for an update on the gaming outlook in the near future.

Posted by: Josh Lehner | November 29, 2018

Economic Mobility: Place and Community Matters

Next Monday, Raj Chetty, via satellite, will be presenting at the Oregon Leadership Summit. If the name may not be familiar, his research certainly is. Dr. Chetty, along with Nathanial Hendren and a rotating cast of coauthors have been producing groundbreaking research in recent years that focuses on economic mobility and outcomes. This is economic rock star level work. It is groundbreaking in at least two ways. First, the level of detail, breadth of topics, and findings help policymakers trying to improve outcomes. Second, the data and methodological work provide a unique and informative data set from which to analyze these outcomes. Dr. Chetty and team have matched millions of tax records over time to look at incomes, employment, incarceration, marriage and the like. They primarily compare adult outcomes for children born in the 1980s with their parents’ outcomes, and based on the location where kids were raised. They don’t have all the answers yet. But the conversation surrounding economic outcomes, and what helps or hinders progress is much further along today thanks to Drs. Chetty, Hendren, and team.

What follows is a long, yet incomplete summary of this great research based on my reading of it over the years.

Read More…

Posted by: Josh Lehner | November 20, 2018

Thanksgiving and Holiday Shopping

As we gather round the table and relatives share embarrassing stories of our youth, we are also scouring ads, websites and our feeds for good shopping deals this holiday season. The near-term outlook remains bright. According to the latest CPI figures, whole, frozen turkey prices are down about 4 percent year-over-year. More importantly jobs and incomes are up and gas prices are falling, setting the stage for solid holiday spending this year.

Over the past couple of years there has been a big debate raging on the outlook for traditional retail versus the rise of e-commerce, or online sales. At this time of year you can think of this as Black Friday versus Cyber Monday. Although at this point, those distinctions are pretty much meaningless. Anyway, the conventional wisdom has settled on the retail apocalypse narrative. Traditional brick and mortar retailers are the walking dead, whether they know it or not.

Now, we have seen hundreds of big retail stores close in recent years, in addition to a few high profile bankruptcies. However, this isn’t about e-commerce, given such sales are just now approaching 10 percent nationwide. The rise of e-commerce plays a role, but a minor one. The big underlying issue behind the bankruptcies seems to be corporate finance, specifically debt problems due to past buyouts and restructuring. Some store closures are tied to sales in general given local economic conditions and population declines. That said, whatever the underlying cause, store closures impact the workers who lost their jobs, and communities that lose their downtown or shopping center anchors.

What gets lost in the e-commerce versus brick and mortar discussion is the fact that large portions of retail continue to do well. This includes auto dealers, grocery and home improvement stores in particular. That said, the segments most exposed to online competition — things like books, sporting goods, clothing and the like — have seen less growth, even some declines, but are not (yet) plunging. The apocalypse narrative is overblown today. However, employment at e-commerce firms, or sectors that facilitate e-commerce sales are growing rapidly in recent years, even if they remain considerably smaller than more traditional retailers.

In terms of the outlook there are a few important items to note.

First, current and future retail vacancies provide a big opportunity for local communities to redeveop and rethink some of their biggest tracts of land. For smaller cities experiencing slower economic growth and even population losses, redevelopment will be challening, and replacing one retailer with another may be impossible. However for larger areas, redevelopment of land along major roads and transportation networks provides myriad opportunities.

Second, our office’s forecast calls for ongoing growth in retail employment in Oregon. The old adage is retail follows the rooftops. So as Oregon’s population increases, so too will the demand for retail goods. That said, over the coming decade retail employment will increase one-third to one-half as fast as population growth. The sector will see gains, but slow ones. Retail employment relative to the size of the population is set to reach historic lows.

Third, at the recent Bend Chamber or Commerce event, Tom Potiowsky, former state economist and current NERC director, put retail on the list of sectors most exposed in the next recession. I think he is right, at least those traditional brick and mortar segments most exposed to online competition. If we’re seeing flattish growth in today’s economy, a recessionary drop will push more establishments over the edge.

Fourth, Conor Sen makes a lot of sense when discussing the e-commerce vs traditional retail outlook. Clearly e-commerce has won a larger and growing share of retail in the past decade, hurting traditional retailers. However, looking forward, Conor notes the drivers of these changes, and their costs may flip. With more vacant retail space in addition to more being built, rents are softening, helping retailer costs. For e-commerce they are seeing ad rates rise, customer acquisition costs increase, and running into transportation supply constraints (truck drivers, costs, congestion, etc). These shifts do not mean e-commerce will recede, but do make it more likely that the coming decade will not just be a continuation of the previous decade’s patterns.

Happy Thanksgiving everybody!

Posted by: Josh Lehner | November 14, 2018

Oregon Economic and Revenue Forecast, December 2018

This morning the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis released the latest quarterly economic and revenue forecast. For the full document, slides and forecast data please see our main website. Below is the forecast’s Executive Summary.

Current economic growth remains strong. Nearly all leading indicators are flashing green, signaling solid gains in the near-term. However, the economy is set to slow moving forward for a number of reasons. First, growth must slow to a more sustainable rate. As the U.S. and Oregon reach full employment, supply side constraints will work to slow growth. These include a tight labor market, infrastructure, higher energy costs, capacity utilization and the like. Such hurdles to growth do not prevent firms from expanding and propelling the economy, but they do require time, plans, and money to overcome. The low-hanging fruit of growth is gone in a mature expansion.

Furthermore, uncertainty surrounding the economic outlook increases over the course of the upcoming 2019-21 biennium. The primary drivers of uncertainty relate to federal policies and the magnitude of their impact on the economy. As the tax cuts and spending increases play out at the federal level, fiscal policy will turn from a driver to a drag on growth in 2020. Similarly, monetary policy will have transitioned from accommodative to neutral, and likely even restrictive in a couple of years. The full impact of the Federal Reserve’s rate hikes that began in late 2015 will be working to slow the economy.

Between today and the next recession, whenever it may come, the Oregon economy will continue to hit the sweet spot. The strong labor market is driving employment rates higher and poverty rates lower for all ages and racial and ethnic groups across the state. One result is household incomes are reaching historic highs on an inflation-adjusted basis. The feel good part of the economy is clearly here.

Oregon’s economic outlook faces significant uncertainty a couple of years down the road, but there is relatively little risk to the outlook over the remainder of the current biennium.  The same cannot be said for Oregon’s state revenue forecast, which faces a tremendous amount of uncertainty in the near term.

Thus far during the 2017-19 biennium, growth in Oregon’s major revenue sources has been consistently stronger than gains in the underlying economy would suggest. Much of the strong revenue growth can be traced to temporary factors, including the response of Oregonians to federal tax law changes. State tax liability has been boosted somewhat due to the federal reforms, but recent payments have been larger than what could reasonably be expected due to the direct impact of the law changes.  It is likely that collections will cool down going forward as households and businesses reconcile their annual tax bills.

One facet of the federal tax reform that has become clearer in recent weeks is the impact of repatriated foreign earnings.  While a significant amount of repatriation is occurring, initial estimates of the flow are proving to be too large, and have been revised downward.  Given the large degree of uncertainty surrounding this one-time revenue boost, policymakers in Oregon channeled corporate taxes associated with repatriation outside of the General Fund, with most going to reduce unfunded pension liabilities for school districts.  These funds will be pulled out of the revenue stream during the next biennium.  The newly lowered estimates imply less will be pulled out next biennium.  Also, since most repatriated profits are returned to shareholders in the form of stock buybacks and dividends, personal income tax collections have been revised downward as well.

Heading into the next biennium, uncertainty about the performance of the regional economy will become paramount.  Growth will certainly slow to a sustainable rate in the coming years, but the path taken is unknown.  Capacity constraints, an aging workforce, monetary policy drags and fading fiscal stimulus will all act to put a lid on growth a couple of years down the road.  However, the exact timing and steepness of this deceleration is difficult to predict, leading to a wide range of possible revenue outcomes for the 2019-21 budget period.

See our full website for all the forecast details. Our presentation slides for the forecast release to the Legislature are below.

Posted by: Josh Lehner | November 8, 2018

Oregon’s Energy Intensity and Household Spending

Energy costs can have big impacts on the economy. This has certainly been the case historically with the 1973 oil crisis and U.S. recession being a prime example. More recently we can observe the impact of gas prices on American automobile purchases. When gas is near $4 per gallon, we buy more cars, but when gas is $2 or $3 per gallon, we buy more trucks and SUVs. Furthermore, we know energy spending is a larger share of low and moderate income household budgets. When prices are higher, households have less money to spend on all other goods and services (or to save) given they need to put gas in the tank to get the kids to school, drive to work, and the like. As such, whenever there are big swings in energy costs, the question is what impact will that have on the U.S. economy, and then how will that impact the Oregon economy as well.

This was a big discussion four years ago after oil prices crashed, and again this year as oil rose back up to around $70 per barrel (it is now back down to around $60 per barrel). Well, the standard story our office tells is that Oregon sees a benefit when prices are low. We are not a mining or oil or gas extraction state. So low prices does not mean less local mining activity, employment, or investment, unlike in North Dakota or Texas. But local households do reap the benefits via their household budgets. They have more spending power, which should help drive higher sales for local businesses. Now, Oregon does have firms that supply the mining industry elsewhere in the country, so there are local feedbacks, they’re just more of a secondary impact.

That is all well and good but the story is a bit more complicated than this. In fact the impact of energy prices is more muted today, and even more so in Oregon than in in the past. Let’s start first with the concept of energy intensity. This measure looks at how much energy is used for every unit, or dollar of economic output. As is the case nationally, Oregon’s energy intensity has been falling for decades. We use approximately the same amount of energy today as we did back in the late 1990s. However our population and economy is significantly larger. As such our energy intensity has continued to decline.

These declines are seen across the various segments of the economy including commercial, industrial, residential, and transportation uses. There are a number of factors behind these declines which we will get to in a minute. But first, one big takeaway from this fact is that given energy use is a smaller share of the economy than before, it means swings in energy costs will have less of an impact than before. This works in both directions. In recent years it means that Oregon saw less of a benefit, or less of a boost to spending when we had low oil prices because it is a smaller slice of the economy.

Factors helping drive the decline include, but are not limited to: energy efficiency, transitioning from more energy-intensive manufacturing to less energy-intensive manufacturing, the growth in services overall in the economy including more office-based work, and simply less energy use per person or per household.

It’s this last factor that was recently part of the discussion we had with our economic advisors. Oregonians spend less money on gas and energy and also on motor vehicles and parts than the national average. This is true if we look at our spending as a share of personal income, or if we look at our average spending per household. Now, this wasn’t always the case. Back in the early and mid-2000s, Oregonians spent more on energy and automobiles than the US, for the most part, but this relative pattern has clearly shifted since.

Given we see this similar pattern in energy spending (above) and in automobiles (below) it points toward Oregonian driving behavior as being a big part of the story. It is not just the Pacific Northwest’s cheap hydropower driving lower energy spending. As discussed previously, total vehicles miles traveled in Oregon first peaked in 1999, nearly a decade before the US overall. Now, VMT has picked up in recent years and recently set a new record, but Oregon’s VMT per person remains low when compared to driving behavior across the country, and from patterns seen during the mid-80s through early-2000s.

So what do we make of all of this? In a macroeconomic sense it all points toward energy price swings having less of an impact on growth and consumer spending then we previously thought. The economic growth seen in industries and sectors that aren’t energy intensive is a big factor, as is the fact that Oregon households spend significantly less on energy and automobiles than their national counterparts. In earlier work, Joe Cortright at City Observatory calls this the “green dividend.” And if you add up the statewide spending patterns, adjust for Oregon’s larger decline in energy and auto spending, this green dividend is a big number. Against a counterfactual where our spending patterns didn’t diverge from the US in recent decades, Oregonians today spend approximately $2 billion less on energy and automobiles. Now we turn around and spend a larger portion and higher amounts on other products and services, housing included. But our patterns do differ than the nation’s, and we have seen a big shift over time.

Posted by: Josh Lehner | November 2, 2018

Portland’s Economic and Housing Outlook

This morning I am presenting at the Home Builders Association of Metropolitan Portland’s annual forecast breakfast. It’s been a few years since I’ve been able to attend again, so we have lots of topics to catch up on! The National Association of Home Builders’ chief economist, Robert Dietz, will also be presenting. I am looking forward to hearing his thoughts on the market and what is happening elsewhere around the country. A few of my remarks and a copy of my slides are below.

It’s a bit of a strange time right now as the housing market rebalances. The near-term data shows new construction activity and home sales flattening out both nationwide and in the Portland area. Households budgets for those looking to buy are getting maxed out now that interest rates are rising, and the carrying cost of a mortgage is increasing more than just due to rising prices. So what is the outlook?

From a fundamentals perspective, the housing outlook remains bright. The demographics already baked into the cake, plus ongoing migration means a growing and thriving region like Portland needs to continue to add new housing supply of all types. Yes, the top end of the apartment market is saturated. This has some spillover impacts on homeowners or at least those on the cusp or buying or renting given rents are softening. But this is a near-term, or temporary imbalance. If the population forecasts are reasonably correct, the region needs to continue to build approximately the same number of units each year in the coming decade.

As I discussed earlier this year at the Multifamily NW breakfast, there are at least three main channels in which this underlying forecast will be wrong. I have fleshed those out a bit more for this morning’s presentation. What has been somewhat surprising to me is that even in a moderate recession scenario — THIS IS NOT A RECESSION CALL, JUST A HYPOTHETICAL SCENARIO — the demand for housing in the Portland area will remain pretty strong. This is due to the demographics, where Millennials will fully age into their root-setting, and home-buying years. Household formation should be stronger than underlying population growth for this reason. Additionally, the baseline outlook from today moving forward is relatively weak. The business cycle has matured and population growth rates have peaked. Given the slower baseline, a recession scenario is not quite as big of a deviation compared to if the baseline forecast continued these strong gains every year into the future.

The bottom line here is that our office does not think housing will be the same issue next recession, whenever it comes, as it was last time. Most importantly from an economic perspective is we are not seeing the big run-up in household debt. The high prices are primarily about a relative lack of supply in the face of stronger demand. Furthermore, those strong housing demographics also mean the downside to housing next recession is a bit more limited than before. Now, this does not mean housing starts won’t fall — they will — or that home prices won’t decline — they probably will some. It just means we are highly unlikely to have an exact repeat of the housing collapse and Great Recession.

Posted by: Josh Lehner | October 31, 2018

Bend’s Economic and Housing Outlook

This morning I am part of the Bend Chamber of Commerce’s Economic Impact Breakfast. Tom Potiowsky, former state economist and current Northwest Economic Research Center director will deliver the keynote, while Employment’s regional economist Damon Runberg will set the stage and moderate the discussion. Should be a great event. My presentation focuses on the statewide economic outlook but I have incorporated some local material as well. What follows are the Bend and Central Oregon specific slides from my presentation.

First, Bend’s labor market is tight. As we’ve discussed before, job growth of 5, 6, 7% annually is the norm in Central Oregon during expansions. That said, like the state, growth is slowing in Bend as the ranks of the unemployed and those out of the labor force shrink. Everyone had a job again and the strong economy has pulled workers back into the labor market. Slower growth by itself should not be a concern. In fact lots of good economic things happen at full employment.

Chief among those good things are wages rise, as do household incomes. The biggest driving force behind Bend’s income growth in recent years is the strong economy. More residents are working and an even bigger increase is seen among those working full-time. Households in the middle and bottom part of the distribution are fully reliant upon the labor market to generate any sort of income gains. All they have are wages. They don’t have capital gains, rental properties or the like to boost income.

As is always the case, when there are jobs available, migration flows return. Central Oregon attracts young families and retirees for the most part. And we all know the quality of life, scenic beauty, and outdoor recreation opportunities are second to none. These migration flows are even stronger in Bend than throughout the rest of the state in recent decades. Today only 1 in 3 adults in Deschutes County was born in the state. Another 20% were born in — you guessed it — California.

These migrants provide an ample supply of young, skilled workers for local businesses in addition to increased consumer demand and sales. Looking forward, Bend is expected to add just under 5,000 new residents a year, and just under 2,000 new households a year for the next decade. Obviously they need a place to live! Housing supply is beginning to pick up in Central Oregon but has yet to fully catch up with the population gains. As such, affordability is a local challenge, just as it is statewide.

When we look at where the household growth is going to come from, it largely follows the overall migration patterns. The largest increases will be seen among older households. Now, this growth is not just due to migration, but also due to the aging of the population. Many of these households already live in Central Oregon. However, much of the growth seen among the 20, 30 and 40 year old households will be new residents and newly formed households. It is important to keep in mind that in terms of housing, by one’s mid-30s there is a 50/50 split between renters and owners. Last time I crunched the numbers for Bend that breakeven point was 37 years old, but that data is a couple of years old now.

For more on Central Oregon see all the great work Damon does as the regional economist.

Posted by: Josh Lehner | October 26, 2018

Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em

Despite a modest correction in stock prices, the near-term outlook remains bright. The economic data flow continues to be healthy. The next 12-18 months should see good growth, in part due to the federal fiscal stimulus (tax cuts, and the spending increase are just now hitting the economy). However, economists are increasingly pointing towards 2020 or 2021 as a period of weakness. At this time the spending increases are set to fade, and monetary policy will have moved from accommodative to neutral, and even, maybe, restrictive depending on how the Fed navigates the next 18 months. It takes time for interest rate increases to slow economic activity, so rate hikes today cool growth 12, 18, 24 months down the road. Unfortunately for our office, this period of potential weakness lands right in the middle of the upcoming 2019-21 biennium. Today we are meeting with our economic advisors to nail down the outlook that will feed into the upcoming revenue forecasts which will first set the bar for the Governor’s recommended budget, and then in a handful of months for the Legislative Adopted Budget which also sets the numbers for any possible kicker next biennium.

Trying to forecast a period of prolonged weakness, or even a possible recession 2 years in advance is a fool’s errand — there is just too much time, too many potential variables and policies taken or not to alter the course that far in the future. That said, it is economists’ job to highlight risks for policymakers and to think through plausible scenarios as forecasts are used as planning tools. So, should all this come to pass and we see some weakness or even a recession, what would that look like? Obviously it’s hard to tell. But right now many economists are thinking the next recession will be more like the 1990 recession and not like the dotcom crash or Great Recession, at least in part because there is no obvious asset or investment bubble today. Neil Irwin in The New York Times had a great article recently on the 1990 recession.

Nationally, the 1990 recession was mild, although what followed was our first real jobless recovery which has now become the norm since then. The story is largely the same here in Oregon. And by some measures Oregon actually saw a smaller recession than the U.S. at that time, which is unusual. So if the next recession is more likely to resemble 1990 than the Great Recession, is there anything we can learn from that experience?

Well, that’s in part what we’re tying to discuss with our advisors today and in the coming months. If we dig into the data, we see that Oregon was not spared the pain of big manufacturing job losses. Oregon lost just as many jobs as the US did at this time. But many of our consumer service sectors and industries more closely tied to population did outperform the U.S., significantly so in some cases.

That’s because population growth and in-migration was quite strong at this time. We typically think that during a recession people hunker down and don’t move. And this is largely true. Look at the early 1980s, early 2000s and the Great Recession. Migration slowed significantly and even turned negative back when the timber industry restructured. Not so in 1990.

Now, banking on this pattern to occur probably shouldn’t be the baseline outlook given 1990 is the outlier and not the typical pattern. Our office remains bullish on the near-term outlook. But should any recession come to pass, we would expect migration flows to slow and Oregon to once again be more volatile than the typical state.

Posted by: Josh Lehner | October 19, 2018

Fun Friday: Alcohol, Marijuana, and Tech

Happy Friday everybody! A friend of the office recently noted that we haven’t been discussing beer nearly enough lately. And it turns out she was right. After our office’s first, real recreational marijuana forecast last year and the Oregon Vice research and presentation I did, our office has been mostly focused on the evolving macro environment this year (more next week). Given this, and the fact that our office recently reconvened our marijuana forecast advisory group, I thought I should rectify the oversight.

Let’s start first with an update to the comparison you never knew you wanted, but are now glad you have. Over the past decade, or since the start of the Great Recession, Oregon’s thriving alcohol, and marijuana sectors have added more jobs than one of the state’s economic pillars: the high-tech cluster. Of course these economic sectors are not directly related, but instead are being used to help frame the discussion for just how fast, and how many jobs are being added here in the state.

We use this chart regularly in our presentations to discuss a variety of legitimate economic topics, including the transition from hardware to software within the tech industry, in addition to the true economic impact from vice sectors lies not with the growing and retailing of the products, but in all the ancillary and support industries that grow along with consumer demand and evolving markets. At its roots, Oregon’s alcohol cluster is value-added manufacturing where firms take raw ingredients — many of which are locally-grown — and turn them into a much more valuable products sold across the state and increasingly around the world. Furthermore, a plurality of brew system manufacturers in the U.S. call Oregon home. So when a new brewery opens up elsewhere in the country, there is a good probability they are buying and using Oregon-made equipment.

Our office’s hope is this type of cluster similarly develops around the recreational marijuana industry as well. Prices continue to plunge as the market matures and marijuana commoditizes. But increasing market activity in extracting oils, creating creams, making edibles in addition to hopefully building up the broader cluster of lab testing equipment, and branding and design firms, means Oregon will see a bigger economic impact from legalization.

Note that the reason for the range of marijuana-related employment in the chart is due to data availability. Our friends over at Employment do a great job of matching employment records to OLCC licensed businesses. Their latest count totals 5,300 jobs in Oregon. Now, these are payroll jobs (technically jobs subject unemployment insurance). Given harvest seasonality, part-time work, independent contractors and the like in a still federally illegal industry, it is reasonable to expect these payroll jobs to be more of a lower bound. However, if we turn to OLCC marijuana worker permits, those currently number 36,000 which is too high. Triangulating a more reasonable estimate — either via a rough sales to employee ratio, or scaling by a similar factor as food handler cards to food service jobs — shows there are probably about 11,000 or 12,000 marijuana-related jobs in the state today.

Finally, I have also been updating my Oregon brewery production numbers to track start-ups, the state’s legacy breweries, and also closures or failures. Given the outright declines in the beer industry overall, and slowing growth in craft beer sales, there has been quite a lot of hand-wringing over what it means. No doubt, retail shelf space is limited and the competition is fierce. Some breweries are seeing substantial declines in their sales and production. However that does not mean the industry overall is unhealthy. In fact, brewpubs continue to thrive, and some of the bigger breweries are revamping their tasting rooms, and adding more locations for better direct-to-consumer sales given they maximize revenue per pint this way. Elon Glucklich at The Register-Guard has great article on this, with a focus on Eugene breweries.

However, as Warren Buffet said, “only when the tide goes out do you discover who has been swimming naked.” For breweries this means that business plans, practices and operations matter considerably more in a world of slowing growth then they do during the go-go days of double-digit gains every year. Slower growth can strain business finances, eventually leading to more closures or failures. So, are we seeing this here in Oregon? So far the answer is no. Yes, the absolute number of brewery closures has risen in recent years, but the closure rate has barely budged. The reason is Oregon has quadrupled the number of breweries in the state over the past 15 years. As such, we should see more closures given there are so many more potential places to run into issues — be they low sales, high costs, personal problems, or the like. To date, Oregon breweries are closing at a significantly lower rate than other types of businesses across the state.

UPDATE: It it also helpful to put the number of closures in perspective with the number of openings. Economists tend to refer to this as churn. There are always new businesses forming and others going out of business. Additionally around 1 in 8 workers in Oregon are gaining or losing a job every single quarter. While topline economic indicators tend to be pretty stable, or show solid gains, there is an incredible amount of churn below the surface. This occurs in good times and in bad. So far, even as brewery closures are rising some overall, the number of new breweries in the state continues to outpace closures by a margin of 4 to 1 in the last three years.

Next week I will have a few posts on the macro outlook, as we meet with our economic advisors to nail down the 2019-21 biennium outlook. Our forecast will be released Nov 14, at which time we will also have an updated recreational marijuana forecast that incorporates all of the latest data and input from our advisors.

Last but not least, a special thank you to Beth Dyer at Employment for helping me get all of the industry data to build the clusters!

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